We lost another one yesterday. David Harper of the oft-linked to and discussed Sktchd sitecalled it quits after a year of think pieces, surveys, podcasts and charts. He’ll continue doing his podcast after a break for the warm Alaskan summer, but those long investigations are a thing of the past. The reasons were the usual: burnout from writing about what you love.
It turns out running a website entirely on your own is hard – like, really hard – and it’s also unsustainable. Maybe it doesn’t have to be, but my problem is I have an unrelenting need to make sure articles go up at least two to three times a week. And beyond that, I’m all about making sure my articles are heavily researched, which means a lot of work no one ever really sees. Doing that entirely on your own can be taxing, especially with a day job. That leads to a lot of time being spent working outside of said day job and a lot of unacknowledged stress adding up, until I realized I spend entire four mile runs thinking about angles for upcoming longforms. Or I’d think about shooting some hoops or watching a movie, and instead I’d make myself write. And that’s my time to unwind. It can be all consuming. Frankly, I just can’t keep it up, and honestly, I’m not sure if I want to either.
Sktchd was the most notable comics analysis site launch of the last year, and it will probably be the last, at least the way things are going. As I’ve been telling you for some time, there is no money in this, and you get what you pay for.
I saw the handwriting on the wall when Jonah Weiland announced he was selling CBR. While Jonah’s social media has become a joyous jaunt around the world, CBR has stayed mostly the same, but change will surely creep in. It was the last of the self-made comics sites. And I began to wonder what was going to fill the niches of coverage, as you may have surmised from a twitter survey I ran:
Serious Question: where do you get your comics news from?
— Heidi MacDonald (@Comixace) April 18, 2016
I asked a similar question on FB, and I was touched to find out that most of my family and friends get their comics news from my Facebook feed. In self selecting surveys like this you wouldn’t expect FB users to get their news from Twitter and so on, so there was really not much to be gleaned from this.
In the weeks since then I’ve been studying news patterns a little more than usual, and I was a little alarmed to see that sometimes if I didn’t cover a story, even a story from a press release, no one did. Alarmed, because I can’t cover every story or even most story or on some days ANY stories. But there is obviously a huge world of comics news out there that should be covered that isn’t Marvel and DC. And that’s what most sites cover, because it’s the bread and butter, traffic wise.
Now the stories I cover aren’t huge money makers. Heck, none of this is. If you’ve come this far you have probably traced my ongoing struggles via a series of posts under the Meta tag. Sometimes it seems like a downward spiral.
I still see a lot of people crying out for real news and reporting. But even in the last few months, the quest for journalism has been replaced by Comics Twitter, which is a far more immediate and interactive medium. And even longer think pieces and personal posts from creators seem to be dwindling, maybe because so many people are spending time on their social media. Or reading about Donald Trump. Not sure which.
I may be old fashioned, but I still think there is no replacement for solid reporting; talking to sources, investigating and giving an experienced overview of the results. There’s not a single old time writer who didn’t think Spotlight was the most awesome movie of the year. Imagine just paying four people to sit around and investigate problems! In the film, the result was shedding light on a pernicious system of abuse that was condoned by one of the most powerful societal structures ever known to humans, the Catholic Church. A feel good story about things that made people feel very, very bad. The Boston Globe has been caught up in the downward spiral of all news organizations, but apparently the Spotlight team still exists.
Needless to say, there’s no such thing as Spotlight in comics. The closest thing we have is Rich Johnston, someone who loudly proclaims he isn’t a journalist but a Fleet Street gossip monger. Despite our frequent differences of opinion, I know Rich does good work when he can, but doing journalistic work in the spare time of running a salacious website isn’t a very comforting situation.
The very complex stories of sexual harassment that have recently rocked the comics industry are a clear example of an area where some objectivity from a Spotlight team would have helped. I’ve yet to see a substantive report on the matter that wasn’t written by someone who was actually involved in the situation (myself included), which is mind boggling. Maybe that’s the level of conflicts of interest that we have to live with in this industry, but it’s still troubling.
I also realize that some people objected to my use of the word “objectivity” in the previous paragraph. In a world where one tweet can be a news story in itself, we’re surrounded by the story and become part of it. For many that is enough. For me, I’ve seen enough facts that weren’t, and tweets that weren’t true to need to take everything with a grain of salt. But still, the main forms of expression now seem to be twitter essays and comics product announcements. Everything else is tl;dr
I’ve been trying to write a post similar to this for months, and I even worked up some traffic graphs and charts to show who read reading what. That’s a bit of overkill, I think, but suffice to say: what my investigations uncovered is that there is still a need for news that isn’t Marvel, DC or even Image, and certainly that isn’t about Norman Reedus wanting to play Ghost Rider. And I still haven’t given up; the Beat will continue until the last lights are turned off or I get evicted from Stately Beat Manor. My motivation for continuing on is partly because of all the nagging emails I get from publishers and creators to cover their work. If they want coverage there must be a need for it, and based on my studies, The Beat covers a news niche that no other comics site does and it still gets more traffic than any comics sites that aren’t owned by corporations or publishers. That’s something that’s purely from the strength of my writing and my team’s writing and I’m very proud of that.
But in order to do that, I need support. Moving to Hiveworks has given me a lot more time, and increased revenues a bit, but my spare time is mostly spent working on jobs that pay a lot more than working on the Beat does. I wish that wasn’t so, but it is. David Harper, to return to the top of this post, had a steady day job that subsidized his writing about comics. So do almost all of the best writers about comics these days. I’m 100% freelance and I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Beat makes money but it’s still a labor of love.
And I’m hardly alone in that. Getting people to pay for anything these days is hard, but if you believe in good writing about comics, please consider putting each month the cost of a fancy coffee drink or a cocktail towards a comics site or writer you like. It doesn’t need to be the Beat (although I would love it to be) but it should be something. A lot of people have started Patreon campaigns in recent months for just that purpose. I certainly don’t agree with all these writers all of the time, but they do good work, and could use support:
Zainab Akhtar – I know Zainab shut down Comics & Cola but she’s working on putting out a print magazine and her ShortBox project, although her Patreon page doesn’t mention these.
Most of these campaigns are pretty modest at this point. One of them had $0 in pledges when I went to link to it, so I threw in some money.
It is pretty startling that almost all of the best, most urgent writing about comics is crowdfunded at this point. So crowd, you’d better fund.
On a personal note, I’ve lost several patrons over the last few months; times are tough so I don’t begrudge anyone cutting back. And I truly value each and every dollar spent on this site, and, really, it’s what keeps me going. But if you do like what I’m doing, consider buying me that cup of coffee. It takes a lot of coffee to keep The Beat and every other site running. I finished writing this at 5 am; I’ll be up at 10:00, so today, anyway, I’m going to need a lot of coffee.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.